Exactly 200 years ago, the most incandescent composer in musical history was born. Of all the great Viennese composers, only Franz Schubert was actually born there. The son of a school master, he began to study music when he was seven. When he was 11, he entered the imperial Court Chapel Choir (the forerunner of the Vienna Boys Choir) where his musical education continued. His earliest extant compositions date from his 13th year. At 15 he began counterpoint lessons with the unjustly maligned Antonio Salieri who also taught Beethoven. When he was 17, he wrote his first masterpiece, Gretchen am Spinnrade, which was unlike anything previously written and can be said to be the first great art song. From this point on he was a fully mature musical genius. When he was 31 he died, allegedly from typhoid fever complicating long-standing syphilis. His final illness, however, resembled typhoid not at all. I choose to believe the cause of death was incandescence. He had composed almost 1000 works, including 600 songs which have among them the greatest works in this genre.
Though he lived all his life in the same city with Beethoven, Schubert never dared approach him even though Beethoven was his idol. When the elder composer died in 1827, Schubert was a pallbearer at his funeral. The following year, he was buried in the same cemetery in a grave not too far from his hero. It was as close to him as he ever got.
Benjamin Britten characterized the last 18 months of Schubert’s life as the greatest sustained burst of creativity ever produced by any composer. String quartets, quintets, piano pieces, and songs flowed from his pen like a vast Niagara eager to prove it could not run dry, but knowing it soon would. This deluge of inspiration culminated in the Sistine Chapel of song cycles, Die Winterriese – the proofs of which he corrected on his deathbed.
No genius is ever totally unappreciated in his lifetime, but Schubert came close. He had a circle of friends, artists or artistic, who highly valued his music – especially his songs. But they had no idea of the totality or originality of his enormous output. For years after his death, new works were steadily discovered among his effects or in the possession of friends or relatives. Robert Schumann, the composer most discerning of musical genius in others, was among the first to realize how extraordinary Schubert’s achievement was. Schumann wrote that when he learned of Schubert’s death, his weeping was so loud that the lamplighter heard him out in the street in front of his house. Schumann was 18 at the time.
Schumann arranged the first performance of Schubert’s Great C-major Symphony a decade or so after its composer’s death. Mendelssohn directed the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in a mutilated version. It took more than the rest of the century for the world to realize that here was a work that even Beethoven couldn’t surpass. His great works for piano were hardly performed at all until well into the 20th century when Schnabel’s performances finally established them in the repertory.
Schubert was a loner and a misfit. His father was greatly disappointed in the way he turned out. He was unattractive, barely five-feet tall, given to bouts of severe depression; he periodically abused alcohol and was prone to violent, unprovoked outbursts. Chronically ill for most of his adult life, he was filled with the sense, correctly, of impending doom. He was also a man who inspired great loyalty and affection in his friends.
But it is the music that stands on its own. No composer’s output contains so much quality in the density that Schubert provided. His harmonic inventiveness was generations ahead of the rest of Europe, though of course no one knew it until generations had passed. Schubert was probably the greatest melodist of all composers; he was able in his songs to use this extraordinary gift to achieve amazing psychological penetration. Someone once said that he could accomplish in three minutes what it took Verdi and Wagner three hours to do (well, maybe five in the case of Wagner).
Consider just two of his 600 or so songs. First, the aforementioned Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel). Written on the 14th of October, 1814, it is taken from a scene in Part One of Goethe’s Faust. Gretchen sits at her spinning wheel thinking of her lover, Faust. The piano accompaniment relentlessly mimics the spinning wheel, while the vocal line expresses the uncertainty and longing of a very young girl who is caught in the throes of sexual excitement for the first time in her life. She does not know what has happened to her. “My poor head has turned crazy on me… I look only for him out of the window… Ah, if I might clasp him and hold him, and kiss him as I should like, at his kisses I should expire.” Schubert’s music captures the intensity of Gretchen’s desire and reveals its emotion to us only as music can do. That Schubert was the same age as the protagonist of the song is miraculous.
Schubert composed his cycle of 24 songs, Die Winterriese, in two sections, the first 12, in February of 1827. He began composition of the last 12 in the autumn of that year. He described the work as a “cycle of frightful songs.” The songs are about a journey leading but to the grave. When the postman comes in song 13 (The Post), he brings no mail for the protagonist. When the frost turns his hair white in song 14 (The Old Head), he thinks he’s become an old man and is pleased. When it melts and his hair turns black again, it makes him realize how he abhors his young years. The most frightening and original of these songs is the last – Die Leiermann (The Organ Grinder). Here, an organ grinder grinds with frozen fingers an organ that no one cares to listen to – just as no one has heard the protagonist. There is no melody, just the repeated figure in the piano signifying the grim hurdy-gurdy. The last lines of the song and the cycle are: “Strange old man, so curious, shall I come with you? Will you my own songs grind your organ too?” The answer, of course, is that there will be no more songs.
Schubert never had any of his symphonies performed by a professional orchestra. The genesis of his final symphony in C-major around 1826 can only be guessed. This is a gigantic work that displays a rhythmic vitality that no composer has ever surpassed. There are no sketches for this work. It appears that Schubert composed the work in full score, that he had the whole enormous conception worked out in his head before he put anything on paper. His orchestration is brilliant, particularly the use of trombones in all four movements. The work requires a great orchestra and conductor for its full realization. But when it’s brought off, it reaches a symphonic level only attained by one other composer.
Many of Schubert’s instrumental works are long. Someone once said to Stravinsky that Schubert’s works were so long that they put the listener to sleep. Stravinsky replied that it didn’t matter because when he woke up, he was in paradise. The Fantasia in F-minor, written just before Schubert died, lasts only about 16 minutes, but it contains the piano’s whole world. Written for piano four hands, I have also heard it performed on two pianos. Regardless of how many pianos, it shows all of Schubert’s powers of melody, harmonic development, and compaction of ideas. I’ll never forget the impact it made the first time I heard it. It opens with a melody of beauty and grandeur which marks it immediately as being Schubert – no one else could write such a tune. Schubert develops this melody extensively, but always in a style belonging only to him.
Schubert’s role in musical history is still evolving, even after 200 years. If you read criticism about his music written just a generation ago, you would come away with the impression of a genius who died before he could filly realize his enormous talent. This view is worthy only of the trash can. Tragically short though his life was, he clearly ranks with the supreme masters of his art – Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, and Brahms. Had he lived anything close to a normal span, he would have passed them as well, I think. Clearly, he was the most floridly-gifted composer who ever lived. As one of my former colleagues described him – an angel from heaven.
Kurtzman NA: One Score and Eleven. Lubbock Magazine (April):46-47, 1997.